Karl Sharro







Visionary Architecture: Blueprints of the Modern Imagination

Neil Spiller


Of late, there has been a resurgent interest in the subject of visionary architecture – there were two major exhibitions dedicated to the subject in London this year alone. Neil Spiller, professor of architecture and digital theory at the Bartlett School of Architecure, continues the trend with his book Visionary Architecture:Blueprints of the Modern Imagination. According to its publisher, it is the ‘definitive history of visionary and experimental architecture since 1945’. There is no shortage of literature on the history of visionary architecture, but the more important question to ask now, which Spiller partly addresses, is what visionary architecture means today.


Phantasmagorical and experimental architectural projects certainly abound. However, visionary-ism is not exclusive to experiments in form-making. The question of how form can be imbued with meaning has long occupied visionaries, particularly in the secular West. Architecture’s relationship to society is as important, firstly because architectural form inevitably acquires social meaning, and secondly because architects have traditionally imagined new ways of life, not just new architectonics.


Spiller is certainly concerned with these questions and primarily approaches them through a thematic account of the history of visionary architecture. He explores architectural practices in different historical periods, identifying the various strands that connect and inform the works. Ever conscious of the question of meaning, Spiller examines the various ways in which architects have dealt with the semantics of form over the past six decades. This adds a critical dimension to what would otherwise have been a historical survey of an already well-documented subject matter.


Spiller identifies key flaws with some of the most celebrated visionary practices and ideas. He criticises Archigram’s a-political approach to architecture and the city as a celebration of consumerism and an ultimate surrender to what Guy Debord termed ‘the Society of the Spectacle’. He also criticises the relativism of the 1980s deconstructionists, including Bernard Tschumi and Peter Eisenman, and their refusal to privilege any specific philosophical or political idea. Spiller sees such a position as inevitably nihilistic, and therefore incompatible with visionary-ism.


So far so good. Given the lingering influence of some of the schools of thought that Spiller discusses, particularly deconstruction, a critical re-examination of these concepts is imperative in order to discern a new way ahead. Up to the 1980s, identifying what is generally considered visionary architecture is relatively straightforward. To look for it in the present is much more of a challenge, but Spiller is not daunted by it. He approaches the task with an encyclopaedic zeal, but his effort perversely ends up highlighting the paucity of visionary architecture today.


The very structure of the book reflects the futility of searching for visionary-ism today. Spiller’s thematic account of past experiments is developed in 11 chapters that are punctuated by smaller sections dedicated to ‘case studies of some of the most exciting practices working today’, as if Spiller felt the need to separate out contemporary practitioners and assign them to the margins. What is clear is that he cannot convincingly link contemporary work thematically with the much more robust work of the past, but instead opted for a formal arrangement to accommodate both in one book. This is why Spiller fails to provide an original or critical insight into the contemporary condition of architecture, which is ultimately visionless and introspective.


Such a critique is essential to the search for meaningful and experimental architecture. But Spiller takes the easy way out, preferring to appease rather than challenge the present. Ironically, though Spiller’s main strength lies in his examination of the relationship between form and meaning in the past, his main weakness is his inability to critically examine that relationship in contemporary practice. His remedy for restoring that severed connection appears to be mystical in nature – he shows a strong preference for the allegorical and the symbolic over the socially meaningful.


Consider, for instance, his description of Coop Himmelb(l)au’s Blazing Wings project: ‘Blazing Wing was an architecture of event, a never-to-be-repeated architecture, an architecture of flame. Why flame? Flame embodied the zeitgeist, a fragile but dangerous beauty, hot yet cool, the heat of alchemical transmutation.’ The fascination with alchemy and mysticism is apparent throughout the book. While this does animate Spiller’s tone when he passionately discusses the past, it is a limitation to discussing the future, which cannot be mystified. Instead of confronting the introspective nature of today’s architectural experimentation and its detachment from society, Spiller ends up reinforcing that very trend. As a historical survey, his book is certainly useful, but Spiller misses the opportunity to engage in a search for a visionary architecture of our time.


Karl Sharro 2007


First published in the January 2007 issue of Blueprint Magazine